Veird Vednesdays: Fangs for the memories

In 1800s France, an infected woman is given a transfusion of goat's blood—a desperate, futile measure to ward off the disease. (The Science of Vampirism)

Vampires are freaking scary, man. Now, I’m not talking sparkly Edward Cullen or cunning Strahd von Zarovich here. The vampires of yore that I'm talking about are more in the style of Nosferatu--creepy, corpse-like and bloodthirsty. They’re also REAL.

Ok, ok. Maybe I should expand on that.

Blood is a hot commodity in nature. It’s the basic delivery system for the body, taking oxygen, nutrients, waste products and other tasty bits throughout a biological system. It’s rich in protein, minerals and other nutrients.

This is where the vampire bit comes in. There are a ton of animals out there that, instead of using a ton of time and energy on hunting, tap into the bloodstreams of larger beasties. With just a little bite, you’ve got a mouthful of nutritious, easy-to-digest foodstuff from an animal that will still be alive for you to feed on the next day. What’s not to love?

Now, we all know about vampire bats, as well as mosquitoes, ticks and other such creatures. Today, I’ll go into some of the weirder wonders of the vampiric world. Strap in and get your malaria shots, folks.

Vampire worms

Leeches are, in fact, a type of worm, cousins to the earthly ones you’d find digging in your garden. It’s theorized that it was early in the evolution of annelids (segmented, worm-like organisms) that leeches mutated to forgo digesting leaves and instead go for the throat. They’re typically found in stagnant water, where they lie in wait for their victims within the mud.

Leeches are ambush predators, sticking out their long proboscis to catch a passing earthworm, slug, clam or foot, and then chomping down with their rasp-like mouthpieces. A special anticoagulent called hirudin is used to prevent clotting, and it’s used by the medical community as a blood thinner. Medical leeches are also used to help encourage blood flow to surgical sites and promote healing. Hey, just because they’re leeches doesn’t mean they can’t give back!

Vampire plants

No, I’m not talking about Audrey II.While plants have (fortunately) not yet evolved to creep up our bedsides and use our veins for fertilizer, there is one: Cuscuta pentagona, also known as strangleweed. This little vine of horrors will creep up an enticing, nutrient-filled stem and puncture it, sucking down the sap for its own. Research has actually found that the vine will exchange RNA fragments with the plant, possibly manipulating its genetics to benefit the parasite.

Vampire birds

If you ever thought your grandma’s parrot had a murderous look in its eyes, you’re probably on to something. Contrary to popular belief, not all birds are sweet little seed-eating canaries, least of all the Galapagos vampire finch, Geospiza difficilis septentrionalis. These little fellas would have thrown Darwin for a loop.

Their beaks are made for seed-eating (which is what makes up most of their diet) but they tend to supplement their feeding with nectar from prickly pears and blood from other birds—most notably, the blue-footed boobie (heh heh). The finches will peck at their victims until they bleed, then sip a little blood and fly on their merry way. Unfortunately, they’re endangered due to disease and environmental instability.

Vampire snails

If snails weren’t horrifying enough, now you’ve got a vampiric gastropod to worry about! Found off the tropical coast of West Africa (and in parts of Sicily, which goes to show garlic isn’t a repellant to all vampires), Colubraria reticulata spends its snaily days in the sandy shoals, waiting for its next victim.

At night, when an innocent fish foolishly decides to sleep nearby, the snail will creep up and extend its proboscis, piercing the prone piscor and sucking down its juices. Like the leech, the snail will inject a cocktail of anticoagulants, some of which are being studied by medical researchers for use in humans. Snailed it!

Vampire humans

That’s right! There are recorded historical accounts of vampires running to and fro through our American colonies, wreaking havoc that provided fuel for the stories we share today.

Now, I’ve already gone over the New England Vampire Panic, but I’m not talking about tuberculosis cases gone wrong. There are a multitude of other diseases that historians attribute to the vampire myth.

Porphyria is a popular one. Caused by a genetic condition that induces a buildup of toxins in the body, victims of the disease would report a sensitivity to sunlight (to the point where patients would “burn” when exposed) a receding gumline, excessive sleepiness and hallucinations. A touted cure for the disease involved drinking blood—sound familiar?

Rabies is another one. Bats are an oft-cited carrier (though a pretty low percentage of them truly have the disease.) The disease is spread by biting, and causes victims to fear running water (which vampires were said to be unable to cross) and sunlight (as rabies heightens sensitivity). They’d often behave erratically, hallucinating and drooling or attacking their loved ones before dying.

While most vampire myths can be attributed to science, there’s still always that fear of the things that go bump in the night. Whether it’s bats flitting overhead, leeches lurking below or disease attacking from within, bloodsuckers aren’t going anywhere. Use bug spray, don’t swim in muddy holes, watch your garden and, of course, stay weird.


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.